The Difficulty with Submission in Lent

By Joe LaGuardia

Several years ago–has to be nearly a decade by now–the Holy Spirit convicted me that I needed to learn a thing or two about submission and obedience.  I had been a Christ-follower for some time, but I have always had a flavor for independence and strong-willed stubbornness.

In fact, I became a Baptist not 10 years earlier precisely because I did not want to answer to a bishop, pope, or diocese bureaucracy.  A Baptist minister only answers to his or her congregation, but that’s different: there is a relationship; things are contextual; there is room for understanding and dialogue.  Joe LaGuardia was not going to have to explain his philosophy of ministry to some fool who lives tens of hundreds of miles away.

You can see where my problem and attitude can get the best of me here.

So the Holy Spirit convicted me.  God was going to bend my will towards His own one way or another, and it was going to be during none other than the season of Lent.  I had practiced Lent before, but not as seriously as I should have or could have.

The Holy Spirit showed me the first steps: I felt led to go to a nearby monastery and seek out one of the fathers for spiritual direction.  The Holy Spirit did not give me much of anything else, but that’s the marching orders that I got, so I stuck with it.

When I made the appointment, I was assigned to Father Francis once a month.  His specialty (and the monks do have specialties) was centering prayer, and he wanted to instruct me on this ancient practice–a time of silence and solitude, of centering, of meeting with God for nothing more than to spend time with my beloved Creator–every time we met.

Father Francis gave me a card with instructions, and for the next four months he instructed me on various ways to pray.  I was the one seeking spiritual direction, but I did not get a word in edgewise.  Yet, every time I became frustrated with my sessions with the Father, the Holy Spirit jumped in and reminded me why I was meeting in the first place: this was not about me, it was about submission.  It was about obedience.

I was to obey all of the instructions that Father Frances gave me with no questions asked.

I did.  For the entire season of Lent and throughout that summer, I followed those instructions.  I sat in silence and prayer for about 15-20 minutes a day.  I practiced saying my “prayer word,” and sought to master the nuances of apophatic prayer (those of you who studied this stuff know what I mean).  I did my homework.

I was moved.  I was heart-broken (in a good, cathartic way). I was frustrated.  I was angry– all of the paradoxical feelings that confront us when we fast and submit to the kind of life in which God makes us step out of the throne of our hearts so that Jesus can take his place as Lord of our lives. This prayer-stuff was hard work.

I say all of that now because those feelings still arise in me every Lent.  Although I have done something serious and intentional for the season every year since that time–not to mention writing a dissertation on spiritual disciplines and spiritual direction, of which all of this prayer work and submission had been a part–it is still difficult for me to move over and let God direct my life.

It seems that this season is made more difficult because the Holy Spirit is reviving in me some old wounds that I have not faced in a long time–mostly surrounding some squabbles I had with Baptist clergy several years back.

I won’t bore you with the details, but I am not sure I forgave some fellow pastors who have hurt me during that time.  And, apparently, that hurt still abides; so God is bringing me back to the drawing board again–and its about submission.  It is always about submission.  How else are we to travel through Lent and to the cross of Christ, the very place where we crucify our old selves, false selves, ego, and pride that ensnare us and get in God’s way?

Its a terrible, terrible job (just being honest), but we have to do it.

This year, in order to teach me the full weight of obedience again, God pinned me down on my love for XM radio in the car, to which I’ve subscribed since 2008.  As a result, I will be…..(I can’t even write it but I will)……discontinuing….(oooh, ouch!)…..my subscription….(doh!)…..for a time, and that’s the one thing (the Holy Spirit ALWAYS finds the ONE thing!) that I don’t want to let go of most.  So that’s that.

Perhaps those old wounds–and that clergy battle from years ago–is merely a scapegoat.  I don’t want to cast my love for XM radio at the foot of the cross of Christ, so I’d rather put them there.

So here we go again…

 

 

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The Mystics and the “Middles” of Life

By Joe LaGuardia

I attend a Baptist pastor’s meeting every so often in which we have a time of prayer, as well as listen to a one-hour presentation from a guest speaker.  There is always a speaker, and although it is meaningful, we are never left to talk among ourselves—to share, to compare notes, to engage one another, or wrestle with things that are happening in our community.  It is always someone from the outside, some church planter, consultant, or church leader.

Every leader sounds the same: to persuade us to take on new ideas, fresh starts, new programs all designed grow the church, make ministry effective, be relevant, increase giving and tithing, bring revival, save the lost, be true to doctrine, and on and on it goes.

No one ever addresses how to do what I call “The Middle”—that long expanse of ministry in which you are pursuing an idea or program that you were excited about starting a while ago.  No one ever addresses on finishing well either.  We like beginning new things, starting new ministries, buying new things, and getting fresh ideas; but where do we find encouragement just to do what we are doing, stick with things, and bring certain seasons to an end in a way that celebrates the meaning of that season in the first place?

For those of us familiar with the Christian Calendar, we know that “middles” are just as much a part of our walk with Christ as are the beginnings of things (like Christmas) or the end of things (like funerals).  The “middle” is what we observe in the church season known as “Ordinary time,” which goes from Pentecost to Advent. It is the longest season of the church calendar, and sometimes Ordinary Time seems to go on forever.  People get bored, we get anxious; we wonder if this whole thing is a waste of time!

The fact of the matter is that our society has capitalized on beginnings, new things, change, and convincing people that boredom and unrest can be met only with the newest craze, fad, or gadget.  No one knows how to live in the “middle” anymore—to work, eat, sleep, care for family, play with kids, go to church; and to do that over and over and over again.

For me, none other than (and most ironically) the Mystics from the Middle Ages are what have helped me get through my middles and Ordinary Times.

The Middle Ages were a time of great change in Europe, so there were many new things erupting in towns all over the known world.  Universities met the needs of the increasingly curious and ever-growing population of the merchant, “Middle” class.  Monasticism promised an escape from the world, harkening opulent and flamboyant Catholic Churches back to simpler times.  A new movement of mysticism exposed the notion that all this new wealth and learning and concentration of resources were not an end-all of things.

Several mystics marked the 13th and 14th centuries with writings, guidance, and spiritual direction that reminded people that “boring” can be just as spiritual as “the new,” that God works just as much in the mundane routine of life as God does in the “urgent.”

Bernard of Clairvaux, for instance, reformed his monastery by returning to the simplicity of Benedict’s Rule of Life.  He claimed that our hope is not always found elsewhere, say, in the bliss of heaven, but in creation as well—his writings focus on the incarnation of Christ.  Jesus saw it fit to become flesh and blood like us, so there is value in this life, value in our ability to love God and others.

Hildegard of Bingen was a renaissance woman of sorts whose art, music, teaching, preaching, and prophetic witness sought to marry spiritual ecstasy with creativity rooted in earth, rules and routine.  For all practical purposes, she was the West’s first female naturalist—she was able to pay attention to the little things rather than be swept away by the shiny big things that captivated one too many hearts.

Julian of Norwich was also a romantic.  Her writings show a deep spiritual love for Christ grounded in the mundane routine of living, of loving passionately, and of seeking Jesus’ face for the sake of obeying Christ.  She suffered from ailments that became for her sources of spiritual growth.

All of these mystics teach us what Marilyn Robinson calls the “inexhaustible ordinary.”  It has been my passion to teach my congregations this truth: That if you are always looking for excitement at church, or a new program to jumpstart your faith, or the newest purchase to fill that restless hole in your heart, then you are missing the point of Christian discipleship.  It was Augustine who told us that our hearts are restless until it rests in Christ.  But the key word there is to rest—to Sabbath, to enjoy, and to see routines and daily habits as that gift that God gives us to live with intentional purpose and blessing and peace.

Take with you five values that the mystics taught us along the way:

  1. The mystics valued the incarnation of Christ: Make Christ the Lord of your routine (read Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God, if you haven’t already!). In Old Paths, New Power, Daniel Henderson points out that Jesus did not pray as a part of his ministry, he ministered out of a life of prayer.
  2. The mystics valued incarnational ministry: Become a naturalist and develop a sense of interiority that grows outward and beyond you—honing the ability to grow in awareness, empathy, observation, attentiveness (a new(!) book by Samuel Wells, Incarnational Ministry: Being with the Church, addresses this.)
  3. The mystics valued the rhythms of life. Celebrate blessings; accept crises of faith as gifts.  Ministry brings times of joy as well as hardship; do not avoid them, but treat them as potential opportunities to grow in Christ even when others around you fail to grow.
  4. The mystics valued the naming of experiences, even if it meant making up images, words, phrases to best express them (like Julian of Norwich, who coined the curious moniker,  “Mother Christ”). Learn how to articulate your personal experiences of Christ, and offer that gift to help others describe the movements of the Spirit in their life.  Read often to emulate how to wield language and construct alternative narratives whereby others can live.
  5. The mystics valued routine: Incorporate a Rule of Life. It’s healthy, it puts feet to your faith, and it promotes self-care.

A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns: Benedictions and Farewells

By Joe LaGuardia

A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns is a series on hymnody and worship in the church.  By incorporating personal testimony and theological reflection, the series draws meaning and strength from sacred songs past and present.  This article concludes the series.

Benedictions are important in every Order of Worship.  Whether tied to a traditional or contemporary service, the last words that a pastor or music leader says to her congregation or the final words that a congregation sings together is often remembered long after the words of the sermon fades.

For some pastors, the benediction is a blessing–a final word echoing the blessings of the Bible like those from St. Paul for the churches to whom he wrote, or the one that God commanded Moses to say to the people of Israel:

The Lord bless you and keep you;
The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you…
And give you peace” (Numbers 6:22-27).

For others, the benediction is a charge or commission to empower people for the week ahead.  Reminiscent of the Lord’s “Great Commission” in his blessing to the disciples in Matthew 28, this type of benediction serves to inspire confidence that God is active in the world.  It is a final reminder that the real work of the church happens beyond the church campus where people spend a majority of their time.

For many of us pastors, the benediction is a little bit of both: We bless our churches with a word of peace, but we also encourage each parishioner to see that they too are agents of blessing and peace for others.  We hope that in blessing and charging our congregation, people will live for Christ, represent Christ, and put faith into action–that they may live the Gospel, not merely believe in it.

Benedictions are often coupled with benediction hymns.  One such hymn is a classic in Baptist life- Blest Be the Tie That Binds.  I guess it is a Baptist classic precisely because a Baptist minister wrote it.

In the mid-1700s, John Fawcett served a poor congregation in Wainsgate, England.  He was offered a job at a larger, more affluent church but was grieved to leave Wainsgate.  He declined the offer and, instead, stayed with that little church until his death in 1811.

Legend has it that it was in the throes of indecision and anxiety over leaving Wainsgate Baptist that Reverend Fawcett wrote this brief hymn.  It expresses charity and unity of the Body of Christ, the power of prayer and intercession, of mutual encouragement — even unto “sympathizing” tears — and includes the hope that believers will come together whether in this life or the next.

The song balances the longing we have of sharing time with our church family, as well as the call to bear the burdens of others in the world.  All of this, of course, is to take place in the posture of blessing and “kindred minds,” a clarion call for any benediction hymn worth its salt.

Another favorite benediction hymn is the concise “Christian goodbye”* hymn, God Be With You, by Congregational pastor Jeremiah Rankin.  The song was first sung in Washington D.C., making it a perfect chorus to conclude worship, as well as a treasure born in the heart of a nation still healing from Civil War.

The words speak of Old Testament images of a Shepherd-God who provides, secures, protects, and guides.  It is a perfect addendum to Psalm 23 or the Exodus story, in which the provision of God’s promises and blessings to Israel take center stage.

A last type of benediction hymn is that which challenges and commissions.  A contemporary hymn by Ken Medema, penned in 2003, Let Truth and Mercy Find Here*, charges the church with putting feet to faith.  It is not enough for people to meet at church–they must transform that time of fellowship into friendship and push the bounds of justice beyond brick and mortar.

The last verse is particularly challenging:

So now let peace and justice be never far apart,
but flowing like a river for every thirsty heart.
These two shall be united, a mighty moving stream,
Upon whose bands we gather to work and pray and dream.

Set to the tune of AURELIA, the words may be foreign but the tune familiar.

That is what benedictions are, after all–familiar.  They are the earworms that stick with people, the melodies that carry us into a new week, and the words that ring over and over again for a people who are defined not always by their diversity, but their unity in spite of it.

 

*William Reynolds, Companion to Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1976): 72.
*Let Truth and Mercy Find Here
is hymn # 692 in the Celebrating Grace hymnal published by Celebrating Grace, Inc., Macon, GA.